The Bell Jar is a classic of American literature, with over two million copies sold in this country. This extraordinary work chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, successful – but slowly going under, and maybe for the last time. Step by careful step, Sylvia Plath takes us with Esther through a painful month in New York as a contest-winning junior editor on a magazine, her increasingly strained relationships with her mother and the boy she dated in college, and eventually, devastatingly, into the madness itself. The reader is drawn into her breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is rare in any novel. It points to the fact that “The Bell Jar” is a largely autobiographical work about Plath’s own summer of 1953, when she was a guest editor at Mademoiselle and went through a breakdown. It reveals so much about the sources of Sylvia Plath’s own tragedy that its publication was considered a landmark in literature.
A deftly written, astonishingly raw portrait of one young woman's experience with mental illness. Truly deserving of the 'classic' label.
Well, no longer. You can now count me among the most ardent of Sylvia Plath's fans.
But how to go about writing this review? How to do this book justice?
The Bell Jar's heroine and greatest achievement, Esther Greenwood, is a mess of contradictions. And that's putting it lightly. But if I look at her from the right angle—as if she's some kind of fractured mirror—I can see an unmistakable reflection of myself. Esther wants bold new experiences and skills for herself, with a thousand different gorgeous career aspirations, and she dreams wildly and fiercely. Yet she finds herself crippled by indecision and self-doubt when the opportunities to realize those dreams appear before her. She refuses to recognize that self-doubt and ignores everything about herself that she hates most, which gradually causes her mind to turn against itself. She's intelligent and cynical and uncertain, trying to find her way in a world that wants to pack her into a neatly defined box. She's an incredibly complicated, emotional, observant, and unreliable narrator/protagonist. She's a very unstable core for a very unstable book. But she is, without a shadow of a doubt, a stunning character, and I think much of her fear and desperate ambition aligns with my own. Her yearning threatens to consume her (it very nearly does), and that's a feeling I can identify with.
Since I myself could relate to Esther's struggles on this level, I think the book's impact was doubly powerful. But I think many, many others will be able to take away just as much as I did. Not to sound like an overly pedantic literature teacher, but the book thoughtfully handles themes surrounding femininity, sexuality, transformation, and death, among others. (I especially loved how Esther's dynamic with her college boyfriend opens up the fields of gender roles and careers. Her boyfriend's revolting condescension toward her goals says it all, really.) Its exploration of broader topics is meaningful, defiant, and thought-provoking, and done in a way that feels like the book itself is learning with you rather than dictating to you.
Sylvia Plath's prose in The Bell Jar is startlingly lucid and so honest that it's nothing short of a shock to read. It has a frightening, effortless cadence and frankness to it that shows simultaneous disgust and love toward humanity. It's indubitably well-crafted in a literary sense, but it also allows Esther's sometimes-brutal voice to project directly into the reader's head, which is arresting and might take some getting used to. The figurative language throughout is vivid and gorgeous. To make a gross understatement, it leaves a lasting impression. It dances on the line between life and death. It's electric.
Although Plath's breathtaking writing style and heroine stood out to most—as can be expected, because I'm very driven by prose and character as a reader—there are countless other aspects of this book that I could try and wax poetic about. The supporting characters, who are layered and strangely beautiful and quietly despicable. The plotline, which forges ever onward, exhibiting a quietly disturbing haze in some places and an almost violent kind of clarity in others.
I really have to thank the literature honors project that led me to this book (if you're curious, I was doing a comparative analysis of The Bell Jar and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451). I'm definitely planning on rereading The Bell Jar when I'm older; I think this is one of those books that will leave me with something new to consider every time I return to it. This is by no means intended to be a comfort book, as some of my reading material is, but it's found its way into my heart nevertheless. I loved it on first read—it's a strange and eye-opening creature, no question—and I feel that it, along with all of Plath's other work, is a special gift indeed to the literary canon.
There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room. It's like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction—every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it's really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and excitement at about a million miles an hour.
When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know.
"Oh, sure you know," the photographer said.
"She wants," said Jay Cee wittily, "to be everything."
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn't do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn't in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get.
I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.